The North Face


The heart-scraping Korean doc Repatriation (at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Walter Reade, June 19, 21, and 22) follows a group of elderly ex-prisoners jailed in the South for decades after being caught spying for the North. Tortured, many renounced Communism; upon release, those who remained unconverted lived (and sometimes died) in the South before heading home, where they were hailed as heroes. Director Kim Dong-won, 49, spoke to the Voice.

What inspired you to make documentaries? In 1986, I watched the government tear down [the poor neighborhood of] Sanggyedong, to clear the way for redevelopment [keyed to the 1988 Seoul Olympics]. I wanted to show how cruel the government was, destroying people’s homes—a scene the ordinary media wouldn’t dare show. All Korean films required government approval; my Sanggyedong Olympics was the first documentary to refuse to submit to such inspection.

Have any of the repatriated “grandpas” been able to see your film? Even though I sent the tape surreptitiously to the North, I cannot confirm whether Mr. Jo [Chang-son, one of the film’s main characters] was able to actually watch it.

You dedicate Repatriation, in part, to your “anti-Communist father,” who “would have been furious” with the finished project. My father was born in the North, but he moved south in 1946, after the Communists took away his land. He agonized when he found out I was making movies critical of the South—we had many arguments. He passed away in 2002. If he could see Repatriation, he still wouldn’t change his mind about the North, but maybe he would try to see where I was coming from.